ATLANTA -- When the Atlanta Falcons started winning games last season after a 1-7 start, we pointed to their opponents' mediocre records.
When they opened this season with a victory at favored Carolina, we talked about the Panthers' injuries.
When they blew out the Patriots on the road and beat the 49ers at home in November, we said, "wow," and wondered when the hammer would fall.
Then came Sunday's win over the supposedly invincible-at-home Vikings, and it hit us like a Mike Tyson punch: We have been witnessing something magical and wondrous.
A day later, we gawked at the sign in the Minneapolis airport gift shop -- "Vikings Merchandise 30 percent off" -- and the picture in the New York Times of Dan Reeves doing the Dirty Bird.
The Falcons have a three-decade lineage of botched decisions and bungled opportunities. They've raised their fans' hopes before only to let them down like a snapped elevator cable. Those of us who've watched them for years are conditioned to expect failure. How could everything go so right at one time?
"You have to be very fortunate," said coach Dan Reeves, who, of course, is right, but also deserves all the recognition he is getting for organizing his front office, bringing in the right players and coaching.
Still, on the eve of the Carolina game 4 1/2 months ago, it was much easier to envision a 5-11 season than a Super Bowl berth.
Save for the momentum carried over from a 6-2 finish in 1997, training camp didn't serve up much optimism.
Free agent pickup Corey Louchiey, supposedly a major upgrade on the offensive line, bombed in the preseason and didn't make the team. The starter would be Ephraim Salaam, a seventh-round pick.
Defensive tackle Nathan Davis, a high second-round pick in 1997 counted on to make up for the loss of Dan Owens in free agency, quit the team days into camp. Owens would be replaced for former wavier pickup Shane Dronett.
All efforts to land a quality backup quarterback failed. Ty Detmer signed with San Francisco; Eric Zeier was forced to stay with Baltimore, and Mark Rypien remained home with his dying son. The Falcons went into the season with 44-year-old Steve DeBerg, who hadn't taken a snap since 1993, behind the supposedly injury-prone Chris Chandler.
Finally, there was running back/returner Byron Hanspard's season-ending knee injury in the preseason finale. Hanspard helped win close games late last season against Seattle and San Diego with kickoff returns of 93 and 99 yards, respectively. He would be missed.
Extreme optimists figured the Falcons might be good enough to earn a wild-card playoff berth. The rest of us said 8-8.
Then came a deluge of good happenings. Salaam wound up being pretty good. Davis wasn't missed because Shane Dronett played well. DeBerg turned out to be serviceable, winning four times as a reliever and losing once as a starter.
Of course there was a lot more. Jamal Anderson, who was decent but not spectacular in rushing for 1,000 yards in 1996 and '97, blossomed into one of the best players in the league. Chandler stayed reasonably healthy and proved himself to be championship caliber. Free agent pick up Eugene Robinson, thought to be too old at 35, overcame a slow start to become a force at free safety and a powerful locker room influence.
Most of all, the Falcons developed a unique chemistry in which they benefited collectively from unselfish play, a passion for the game and a refusal to succumb.
Said Vikings Pro Bowl tackle Todd Steusse, "Many times this season, when we've gotten a team down, they haven't exactly quit but they kind of seemed to throw up their hands. You feel like you got 'em on the ropes. The Falcons never stopped coming at us."
Now we know. We've been watching something very special.
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